The Isle of May

The Isle of May lies in the Firth of Forth, just under 5 miles off the coast. We had seen it from the Fife coast in April and as we had never been there before, decided to fit in a visit as soon as we could. The island is only about 1 mile long and about 1/3 mile wide. It is owned and managed by Scottish National Heritage as a National Nature Reserve. The history varies a little as some say St Adrian and a number of followers settled on the island but were slain by the Danes in 875. The information provided by Scottish National Heritage concurs with those who say that Saint Ethernan ministered to the Picts of Fife from the island and died and was buried there in 669AD. A small stone church was built around 900AD to replace the previous timber one. Many pilgrims were buried in stone-lined cists between 600-1000AD. Around 1145 King David I founded a monastery with 13 Benedictine monks who built a bigger church and apparently introduced rabbits to the island. During the wars of independence in the 14th century the monastery was exposed to raiding warships and was abandoned by all but one monk. In 1550 the island was sold and a laird’s tower house was built from the remains of the priory. The village consisting of fishermen and their families lasted into the 18th century; the last villager being buried there in 1730. A considerable amount of smuggling went on and it was also a good place to hide from press gangs trying to find naval recruits. A boat runs trips from Anstruther, you can also take an open rubber speedboat from there or from North Berwick passing the Bass Rock en route. We took the Anstruther boat which takes about an hour to make the crossing (spotting a few grey seals) before mooring in Kirkhaven. You then have around two and half hours to explore before the return trip.

The path from the pier to the visitor’s centre and the rest of the island passes through an Artic Tern nesting site. I got dive-bombed twice even though I tried to be as unthreatening as possible.


We first took Holyman’s Road across the East Braes towards Rona and North Ness. The latter are restricted areas for wildlife only. The path runs through puffin burrows; 120,000 are on the island between April and August each year. I have never seen so many in one location.


and past the now disused Low Light which is a bird observatory. It was in use as a lighthouse from 1844 until 1887. We could see the North Horn.

The Beacon was the first Scottish Lighthouse in 1636 with a coal fire in a metal basket burning on top of the keeper’s house.

It was lit for the last time on 31st January. The island was by then owned by the Northern Lighthouse Board who commissioned Robert Stevenson to build the 24m high Main Light in 1816. It was automated in 1989.

The South Horn was built in 1886 and the North Horn in 1938. Heading south again we passed the loch where you can sometimes see
Eider Ducks and Fluke Street where the bird researchers live.

We then passed the ruins of the priory.

At the south end of the island view points overlook the cliffs where there are puffins, guillemots, shags, fulmars, razorbills and kittiwakes and gulls.






All too soon it was time to return to the boat and it began to rain as we boarded. The return journey took us round the other side of the island past cliffs covered with birds and a rock formation called The Bishop.

We then said goodbye to the Isle of May.

Round Britain: exploring Spey Bay


Ever since we walked the Speyside Way in 2012, I have wanted to return and explore Spey Bay more. The campsite here is run by the local golf club. The last time we saw it there was nothing between it and the sea but there are now several new houses between the golf course and the beach with another section yet to be completed. This may have been where the old hotel was situated. In World War II troops were based in the Richmond and Gordon Hotel here and an airfield was built nearby at Nether Dallachy. The hotel burnt down in 1965 and a replacement was built but is no longer here. Spey Bay has Scotland’s largest shingle beach. It is situated on the eastern side of the estuary opposite Kingston on the west. We arrived late afternoon and the after the showers ceased, had a wander on the beach.


Later I returned to see the Summer Solstice sunset.


On most other beaches there are notices asking you not to remove stones but there are none here and in the morning, I saw some people filling large shopping bags.

You can sometimes see Bottlenose Dolphins and whales offshore but today all I could see were birds. At least the crazes for padlocks on bridges and stacking rocks does not seem to have made it here yet. Salmon fishing has probably carried out on the River Spey since prehistoric times. In 1768 a fishing station was built at Tugnet but all that remains are the ice-houses built in 1830, the largest surviving in the UK. Only a third is visible above ground.

The fish were stored here before being shipped out. The last salmon was landed in 1991 and the nearby building is now the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society’s Scottish Dolphin Centre. A local high school project begun in 1988 and completed in 1991 with sponsorship and assistance from local sculptors and stone masons created a number of mosaics and some sculptures.

Across the river is a nature reserve. We saw a heron, swans and various ducks from the opposite bank.

We walked down the section of the Speyside Way to the viaduct (another remnant of the Beeching cuts) and into Garmouth on the other bank.


The Speyside Coffee Roasting Company is based in the local hotel – they roast the Brazilian beans and grind as required. It certainly tasted good and I bought some to take home. We also spotted an information board for the circular 95-mile Moray Way. It is comprised of some of the Speyside Way, the Moray Coast Trail and the Deva Way. It might be on for us to do at some point. As we turned to return to the campsite it was getting more overcast.

Round Britain: Fraserburgh to Banff


Leaving Fraserburgh we took the B road coastal trail through Sandhaven and Pitulie which are contiguous and Rosehearty. My copy of The Fabled Coast describes some of the fishermen’s customs and superstitions in the area. These include naming certain kinds of wave and believing that a breeze could be raised by a sailor whistling or scratching the mast with a finger nail. Stormy weather in Rosehearty was said to be brought on by marriage so weddings took place at the end of the herring season. Certain items were not to be brought onto ships for fear of adversely affecting the weather e.g. eggs because witches were believed to use eggshells as boats. Just out of town is Mounthooly Doocot. It was built by a local estate owner in 1800 to house pigeons for meat and eggs.

Nearby is a mound called Gallows Hill and the Hanging Stone. We diverted along a single-track road down to Aberdour Beach.

It has sandstone cliffs with caves, some of which look through to the sea. Fortunately, it was low tide so we could explore them.

There is a memorial to Jane Whyte, a farm servant’s wife. In December 1884, a steamer left Fraserburgh heading for Burghead. Adverse weather conditions led to the captain having to run the ship aground in Aberdour Bay. Jane Whyte saw the boat and realized that the men would have difficulty getting ashore. She waded out to the boat, caught a rope thrown to her and tying it round her waist, belayed the 15 men to shore one at a time. She sheltered them in her home and with the help of the local minister, they returned home the next day. Later she received the RNLI Silver Medal for Gallantry. Close to the sea are the ruins of St Drostan’s church which was founded in 580AD making it one of the earliest in Scotland. Just above the beach is St Drostan’s Well. East of the beach is a remnant of the old castle. New Aberdour is a 19th century planned village inland. Further on is Pennan harbour and a house called ‘The Old Doctor’s House’. There is a RSPB reserve at Troup Head which has Scotland’s only mainland gannet colony as well as fulmers, kittiwakes, guillemots and razor bills.


After the small village of Crovie is Gardenstown. It has been a fishing town situated amongst the sandstone cliffs for centuries. In 1900 it had 92 boats fishing for herring and salmon. Most of the community was involved in fishing with boats being handed down to subsequent generations. Later on, fishing boats became larger and the trade moved to bigger ports. The workers and their families continued to live there and after a lull in the 1980s and 90s, leisure fishing has now increased and also smaller fishing boats and others. We parked beyond the harbour where there was some street art.

Walking through to the harbour, some just completed street art was on the wall of a building soon to open as a café. I had a chat with the artist and café owner.

On the hillside above the town in Gamrie, lie the ruins of St John’s Church and graveyard. It was probably founded in 1004 and granted to the monks of Arbroath Abbey from 1189-1198. It was renovated in the 17th century and abandoned in 1830 when a new church was built in Gardenstown.
We noticed that several of the houses down near the harbour were for sale but new ones were being built further up the hill. When I was at medical school Gardenstown, with its then rather isolated community was renowned for having a high incidence of Menkes disease, also known as Menkes syndrome. It is an X-linked recessive disorder caused by mutations in genes coding for the copper-transport protein ATP7A, leading to copper deficiency. Characteristic findings of the disorder include kinky hair, growth failure, and nervous system deterioration. Today I saw one local with kinky hair but I suspect that the community is now more genetically diverse and that this is less of a problem. We continued along the coastal trail to Macduff and Banff which sit on opposite banks at the mouth of the River Deveron. Macduff was the last place to build deep-water wooden fishing boats. Our campsite is right on Inverboyndie Beach, so I had a beach walk in between showers.

The ships we had seen at Gardenstown had followed us and were now moored in Boyndie Bay. I spotted some pink seaweed

…and some that might become an abstract painting.

Tomorrow we continue our journey westward.

Round Britain: Aberdeen to Peterhead


We left Stonehaven on a morning too wet to explore the ruins of the old chapel on the cliffs. Closer to Aberdeen we left the A92 and took a minor road around the coast. We passed a rare breeds farm near Doonies Hill.

Major works are underway to expand the harbour in Aberdeen and piles of the of concrete blocks were by the shore. We passed the ruined St Fittick’s Church but were diverted from following the road past the lighthouse and around the point. Further on we could back-track and sat for a while watching ships waiting to enter the harbour.

Over the Bridge of Dee, we drove up the beach front and managed a walk after the rain had stopped. I found a good haul of sea glass.

After crossing the River Don, we diverted to Scotstown Moor Nature Reserve which is also known as Perwinnes Moss.

We then spent the night with friends who live in the Aberdeenshire countryside and returned to the coastal route in the morning. There is a huge new conference centre being built near Dyce and the airport. The older one is in Bridge of Don and is to be closed. Before the rain returned, we had a walk on Balmedie Beach which I remembered from my student days. It is now a country park.

Height barriers prevented us parking by Forvie National Nature Reserve or on the car parks on the banks of the River Ythan. Instead, we diverted down a B road to Collieston and Kirkton of Slain, former fishing communities. There are many caves and small coves along the shore which were used for smuggling foreign spirits in the 18th century to avoid paying taxes. There is a coastal path along to Cruden Bay. The pier was constructed in the late 19th century and renovated in the 1950s.

Sand martins were flying around, eider ducks on the water and gulls perching on the rocks. There were steps up to a viewpoint and paths round to the small harbour and café.

Before we arrived in Cruden Bay, we passed the rather impressive St James’s Church on Chapel Hill and then drove through the village to the Brit Stop at Port Erroll harbour where we celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary.

In the morning we had a quiet walk through woodland onto the cliffs and the ruined Slains Castle. It was built in the 16th century by the Earl of Errol, the previous old Slains Castle having been destroyed by James VI after the Earl of Errol supported a plot against him. In 1597 the Earl returned from exile and began to construct the tower house. It was extended in 1664 and again in 1836. In 1916 the 20th Earl sold it in lieu of death duties and the owner let it become ruined. The roof was removed in 1925 for the materials to be used elsewhere. Bram Stoker is said to have stayed in the castle and used it as inspiration for his Dracula story. Other famous visitors were Dr Samuel Johnson and James Boswell.


We met a few dog walkers en route. Re-joining the A90 the road continues to Peterhead. However, we had a small diversion through Boddam to the harbour and Buchan Ness Lighthouse.

On the way into Peterhead the road passes HMP & YOI Grampian. The old prison which operated from 1888 to 2013 became a museum in 2016. Peterhead prison was known as Scotland’s roughest and there were many notorious escapes and riots, some of which I remember hearing about in the news. The old prison building came into being because in the late 19th century the government decided that a harbour needed constructing on the north coast of Scotland. Peterhead was chosen and granite from a nearby quarry was to be used. A cost-cutting exercise decided that convicts would provide the labour for this breakwater. It took 78 years to build and the prisoners were transported to the quarry in a purpose-built railway, the first state-owned one in Britain. In 1956 both the quarry and railway ceased to operate.

Before we left the town, we wandered around the centre, noticing that it had as many closed shops as other towns in the UK. In the 1970s Peterhead had become an oil industry service centre and had a gas terminal but more recently many companies have left. Fishing remains important. We escaped from the town to relax in the countryside before beginning the journey home. We completed 247 miles on this leg bringing the total so far to 338.

Round Britain: St Andrews to Angus


We had to pop in to Anstruther for a repair to the van technology. Returning along the B road back to St Andrews, we passed the sign to ‘Scotland’s Secret Bunker’ which we had seen on various occasions but never visited so we decided to take a look. Construction began in 1951 and it opened in 1953 as part of Britain’s early warning radar chain ‘ROTOR’. The Royal Air Force occupied it for six years. As technology improved the range between stations could increase and some, including this one, became redundant and were mothballed by the government. From 1958 to 1968 the Civil Defence Corps operated it and afterwards it became ‘Central Government HQ for Scotland in the event of a nuclear war’. It remained in service until 1993.

The main tunnel to the bunker is 150 yards long and is encased in 18 inches of solid concrete.

Further on the solid concrete is 10 feet deep and reinforced with tungsten bars. The main switchboard room could connect 2800 external lines and 500 internal extensions. It was manned 24 hours per day.

There is even a consecrated memorial chapel which is still used.

And a resident MOD cat whom we met.

Outside there are various military vehicles

Leaving St Andrews, we passed the Eden Mill Gin Distillery and crossed the River Eden at Guard Bridge. RAF Leuchars is a little further on but our destination was Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve. We parked by the beach which on arrival was very quiet.

Walking on the windy dunes was reminiscent of walking on Indiana Dunes on a very windy day almost three years ago.

We had our picnic there and the car park was filing up. There is even a crepe shack.

Our overnight stop was at a Certified Location in farmland near Morton Lochs which are also a National Nature Reserve. The Lochs were originally created by the Christie family who were local landlords, in 1906 and stocked with fish. They became a nature reserve in 1952.

We had a walk down there in the afternoon. A sign noted that there had been a tsunami 7,000 years ago with a wave 70 feet high which would have destroyed the neolithic population there. I had heard some time ago about that there is geological evidence of it in some Norwegian Fjord and joked that living right on the sea front on the East Coast might not be a good idea in case it is replicated. Now, rising sea levels secondary to global warming are a more likely threat.
At the loch we saw some coots and their young, a heron fishing in the distance and a red squirrel on one of the feeders.

That evening saw the end of the good weather as rain moved in. The following morning, we picked up supplies in Tayport and then continued to Newport. They are both commuter towns for Dundee and St Andrews. Manna café in Newport sells good coffees and is a community venture run by the local Church of Scotland. The profits support a youth worker. The town sits between the Tay road and rail Bridges.


The first rail bridge collapsed in a storm December 1879 while a train was crossing it, killing all onboard. Across the river, oil rigs were being repaired and Saturday morning boating was in full swing.

Down by the waterfront I discovered some street art:

After crossing the road bridge, we turned east along the coast, past the port and into Broughty Ferry. It had become a popular resort by 1790, known as the ‘Brighton of the North’. The population increased 4-fold in 30 years due to the popularity of ‘taking the waters’. The castle sits on the shore and was built in 1496.

It was rebuilt in 1860 and the Forfarshire Artillery Volunteers were garrisoned there. Later, the Submarine Miners who were ready to lay mines across the Tay in the event of war, were housed in a nearby building. It last saw military service in the World War II and has been a museum since 1969.
The first floor tells the history of the castle, the second is an art gallery containing a small selection of the collection of James Guthrie Orchar who was a prominent engineer and businessman in Dundee in the 19th century.

and on the third floor is an armoury. At the top there is a viewing platform and displays devoted to the local natural history. Down at the windy beach there were only a few brave souls, lots of kelp and I found two pieces of sea glass. It was raining as we left. Driving along the esplanade we passed the Barnhill Rock Garden. In better weather I might have stopped and explored it as I am constructing a new one at home. Our campsite was just beyond the settlement of Lucknow. It is named after the city in India but I still have to discover why.

Trying out the new wheels: Rufford and Martin Mere


Having collected our new campervan last month we were keen to try it out before heading off on our exploration of the British Coast. We decided to go for one night fairly locally to visit somewhere we had not been to before and to revisit an old favourite. Rufford Old Hall is situated in Lancashire, not the part I walked through earlier in the year, but west of the M6. It is now owned by the National Trust having been built in 1530 and owned by the Hesketh family until 1936.

Later wings were added in the 17th and early 19th centuries. We were there not long after it opened and on a week-day, it was quiet. So much so that the room guides jumped on us as soon as we entered a room and were keen to talk whereas I was happy to look around in peace. They had a number of items of furniture, ornaments and paintings etc which had belonged to the family and had been returned to the house. They also had a collection of antique maps of Lancashire including some by John Speed and Robert Morden. Photography inside is only permitted in the Great Hall which has a fabulous carved roof visible from a window in the first floor drawing-room.

Outside there is the garden and woodland to explore. Volunteers were tidying up after the recent gales and torrential rain. Celandines and violets were in flower and bluebell leaves emerging in the woodland so there should be a good display in a few weeks time. We were very thankful that the weather had improved and the nearby Rufford Branch of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal was so still that the trees were reflected in it.

There is a cafe and a few shelves of pre-loved books but nothing I fancied. We spent the night in a nearby Britstop. This is a network of pubs and other places which once you have joined by buying the current year’s catalogue, allow you to park up for the night for free. We stopped at the Farmer’s Arms in Bispham and after enjoying a meal in the pub, settled down on a very misty and wet evening. The following day, the 20th March is the Spring Equinox and a super moon is supposed to be visible but the cloud made this look unpromising. The next morning was a pleasant surprise with clearing cloud and sun. Our destination was Martin Mere which is run by the Wildlife and Wetland Trust. We last visited several years ago in winter as many migrating birds stop off or stay here including 2000 Whooper Swans from Iceland. At this time of year they have all returned north. It is divided into two parts, one devoted to the nature reserve and the other houses endangered birds from around the world. In the nature reserve were many familiar birds including Mallard

a Black-Headed Gull

and a Shelduck Diving.

There were other geese, ducks and waterfowl in the distance. Some people had recently heard a bittern in the reeds. The last time we heard one was in 2003 on Barra but heard nothing today. There were so many other birds in the other half:
A red-Crowned Crane

An Avocet

Spring had indeed sprung as we had our first coffee sitting outside this year before heading home on a relatively quiet motorway for once.

Around Australia: closing the loop – Wollongong to Sydney


Today was our last driving day of this trip. Before we left Wollongong, we decided to take a look at the lighthouses. It is the only place in eastern Australia to have two lighthouses in such close proximity. The oldest is the Breakwater Lighthouse in the old harbour. Construction began in 1871 and the light first shone in 1872. It was deactivated in 1974 and later restored as an historic building. It now at least provides a good fishing spot.

The second lighthouse was built in 1936 on Flagstaff Hill and was the first fully automatic lighthouse in Australia.

We then began our slow route to Sydney. First we drove along the Lawrence Hargreave Drive (B65). It continues up the coast through several small communities. There were several surfers hoping for better waves at Stanley’s Beach.

A little further north is Seacliff Bridge. It was opened in 2005 and built to avoid the constant landslides and rockfalls which beset the old road which ran right against the escarpment. There are car parks at both ends of the bridge (although those at the south end are a little nearer) and there is a footpath along the entire span. Today was brighter than yesterday but there was a lot of haze.

Today was the first time we have seen this sign

and people seemed to be respecting it as we did not see any padlocks. Someone has been painting letters on the piers but I could not see all the piers and the whole word.

Below us, a man in a small boat was putting lobster pots out. We had coffee at Stanwell Park which is the largest village on this section of the coast and has two cafes. Afterwards we stopped at the very busy Bald Hill Lookout which has views out to sea and down the coast and is very popular as a launching place for hang gliders.

We then drove through Royal National Park and had our lunch by the Hacking River in Audley. Several Purple Swamphens were eating on the bank.


Afterwards, the minor road joins Highway One, the Princes Highway and we followed this into the city, continuing on another road to avoid the motorway. We had to drop the hire car off at an office at the bottom end of Pitt St near Circular Quay. My navigation system suggested a route for the last few miles but major road works and ‘no right turn’ notices kept foiling us. Fortunately, the traffic was not too busy. After being re-directed several times we saw a police station and James was given a route which avoided all the problems and via a very small lane, got us to our destination. We thought that we would soon be installed in our hotel. Not so. As the car hire office is next to a hotel and taxi rank, it should have been an easy task to hail a cab and jump in for the short journey. Many of the taxis in Sydney run on gas and have a tank in the boot, reducing the space for luggage. As we have a fair pile after such a long trip the first guy refused to take us and there was a prolonged discussion between the drivers. I spotted an estate car across the road and when the drive appeared, asked if he would take us. He was reluctant as he was the last taxi to arrive at the rank but eventually was persuaded to take us. Today we only drove 92 miles and the final total for the whole trip is 11, 584. We now have a couple of days in Sydney to relax, see friends and get ready for our homeward flight where we will be planning our next journey.